February 18, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Peter Damian

John F. FinkThe feast of St. Peter Damian, one of the 33 Doctors of the Church, is on Feb. 21.

Peter is known as a reformer. The Church badly needed reform when he was growing up in Ravenna, Italy, during the 11th century.

It was the age of feudalism when lords controlled who was appointed to ecclesiastical offices, a practice that resulted in simony—the buying and selling of Church positions. Clergy became wealthy, and concubinage among priests was common. Religious practices among the laity declined as corruption among the clergy grew.

Corruption even reached the papacy when one pope accepted a bribe to abdicate but later changed his mind, and three men were vying for the papacy. Things settled down somewhat when Emperor Henry III selected Leo IX to be the pope in 1049.

Peter Damian was a Benedictine monk who helped Pope Leo and subsequent popes reform the Church. He wrote a book against the vices then prominent among the clergy, especially simony and concubinage.

Pope Stephen IX forced him to become the cardinal-bishop of Ostia—threatening him with excommunication when he tried to refuse—and Peter reformed that diocese. He then resigned, and retired back to a monastery.

Rather than quote from his books concerning reform, I will quote from a letter he wrote to a friend who needed consolation, although we don’t know why he needed words of comfort.

Peter began by saying that he really didn’t need to write because consolation was already within his friend’s reach. His friend was a son of God, he said, and he should take possession of his inheritance. Adversity will test the spirit, he said, but it is not the torment of a slave, but rather the discipline of a child by its parent.

He wrote that, for God’s chosen ones, there is great comfort in the fact that torment lasts but a short time. “Then God bends down, cradles the fallen figure, whispers words of consolation.” With hope in his heart, a person can pick himself or herself up and walk again “toward the glory of happiness in heaven.”

Peter wrote that, when people suffer pain for the evil they have done, they can take reassurance from knowing that for their good deeds undying rewards await them in the life to come.

He urged his friend, therefore, not to despair, be depressed or let weakness make him impatient. Rather, “Let the serenity of your spirit shine through his face. Let the joy of your mind burst forth. Let words of thanks break from your lips.”

The way that God deals with people can only be praised, Peter wrote. “He lashes them in this life to shield them from the eternal lash in the next. He pins people down now. At a later time, he will raise them up.”

He repeated his advice to look serenely toward the joy that follows sadness. He wrote, “Hope leads you to that joy and love enkindles your zeal. The well-prepared mind forgets the suffering inflicted from without and glides eagerly to what it has contemplated within itself.” †

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